The rise of AI turns European universities into the new Harvard and Stanford for tech talent

The dramatic new-age story of a college student who strikes gold in a billion-dollar idea shortly after putting on his graduation gown has been a very American dream for much of the 21st century.

As Europe lagged behind the tech boom, the still-reigning founders of Google, Meta, and Microsoft began their journeys from the sweaty dormitories of Harvard and Stanford.

However, several interesting European startups are showing that they will not be left behind in the AI ​​revolution, with more capital now flowing through Paris than anywhere else on the continent.

According to Dealroom data analyzed by venture capital fund Accel, French AI startups are the best funded among their European and Israeli peers.

Companies such as Mistral, Owkin and Hugging Face have helped French AI startups accumulate $2.3 billion worth of capital to fuel their burgeoning operations, more than their competitors in other European hubs such as the United Kingdom and Germany.

The data confirms that Paris universities are the source of France’s new technological muscle.

Parisian literary intelligence

Arthur Mensch, the 31-year-old chief executive of AI unicorn Mistral, is perhaps the most interesting face of France’s burgeoning tech sector, overseeing the rapid rise of the large language modeling group to a $6 billion valuation.

But he began as most of his fellow French founders did: at a Parisian university.

About 57% of the French founders came from the École Polytechnique, a science and engineering-focused university based in the southern Paris suburb of Palaiseau.

Mensch was one of them and studied applied mathematics and computer science at university between 2011 and 2015.

Mistral’s co-founder is also a former Google DeepMind employee. He’s in good company, as 11% of founders analyzed by Accel start at Google.

The Pierre et Marie Curie campus of the Sorbonne Université and Telecom Paris are the other important universities in the capital where the current founders were trained.

Meanwhile, the Ecole Normale Supérieure is where technology’s protégés grow. Around 29% of French founders gained work experience at university, surpassing US universities Stanford and MIT and AI giants such as Google and Facebook. Mensch de Mistral earned his PhD at the university of the 5th arrondissement of Paris before moving to Google.

The search for capital in AI is trendy across Europe. While French startups receive the most funding, the UK has the most Gen AI startups of the 221 identified by Dealroom.

Universities become founding factories

It was not always the case that European universities were the birthplace of founders of multi-million dollar companies. Entrepreneurs often decry a cultural mismatch that means innovation rarely begins behind the walls of universities on the east side of the Atlantic.

But things are changing thanks to the rise of AI.

Accel partner Harry Nelis has been investing in Europe’s tech ecosystem for two decades and says the landscape has “changed dramatically” in recent years.

He credits “founding factories,” in other words, startups creating new companies.

“At first we invested in entrepreneurs who came from large French companies and who had not done so before.

“As a result, they would have to reinvent the wheel several times,” says Nelis.

Now, Europe’s mature ecosystem is becoming home to several of these founding factories, the most important being universities, along with Meta’s establishment of its Fundamental AI Research (FAIR) center in Paris in 2015. .

Given that AI is based on deep technology and basic models, Nelis says it is not surprising that 38% of Europe’s founders held positions in academic institutions.

“This is really new for the AI ​​wave. That wasn’t the situation with the e-commerce wave, for example, or the enterprise software wave; “It is something truly unique for AI,” he says.

However, there is an imminent threat from France’s comparatively chaotic political wing.

President Emmanuel Macron called elections last week that could bring the country’s far left or far right to power.

The news sent France’s stock market into a tailspin, allowing the London stock exchange to regain its crown as Europe’s largest.

That in itself is disturbing enough without having to remember Macron’s pro-business stance.

The president has been at the forefront of an investment campaign called “Choose France,” which has allowed $16 billion of capital from tech titans like Microsoft and Amazon to flow into the country. A disrupted French political landscape could alter priorities.

Nelis, however, believes that not even a historic shift towards the French ruling class could stop the hard-won supremacy of AI.

“I think the AI ​​wave will be so powerful in its own right that politics won’t really matter much.”

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